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Mah-jong, yet another Twenties’ fad

When Buddha plays Mah Jong‘ by Jose Maria Lucchesi, published by Max Eschig (Paris, 1926). The cover is not signed, but was probably designed by Gaston Girbal.

The drawing of the laughing Buddha holding a domino in his hand, gives us reason to believe that the illustrator didn’t know how a game of mah-jong looked like. At that time, in the mid-twenties, the mah-jong was still a novelty in France and reserved for the very rich.

‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ by R. Penso, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

On the cover of ‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ Clérice shows that he had a better understanding of the tile-based game. Mah-jong commonly involves four players and 144 tiles divided into categories such as flowers, bamboo, winds, dragons and seasons. In those days, the tiles were beautifully marked with intricate and colourful designs and sold in elaborately carved oriental drawer boxes.

‘Mah-Jong’ by Jára Beneš, published by Wiener Boheme Verlag (Wien, 1924). Unknown illustrator.

The French Vogue from January 1924 lyrically introduced the mysterious oriental game to its readers: “The dizzying smell of sandalwood, that one inhales on the banks of the large rivers running through the vast empire of the rising sun, is enclosed in these little dominoes of ivory and bamboo like in a breathtaking incense burner.”

“The origins of the game” Vogue continued are lost in the mysterious Chinese night”. Indeed, although the history of mah-jong is contested, it is generally accepted that the game evolved in China somewhere in the mid or late 1800s. There it was primarily a gambling game, often played for very high stakes. Westerners first saw the game in Shanghai and Macau. It was then introduced in America and —with a bit of commercial push and marketing flair— it became a craze in the early 1920s. The gambling though was left out. And also, applying the commercial axiom never to sell complicated things, the rules  were simplified.  From there on it arrived in Europe.

But Vogue concocted a more exciting ‘history‘ to charm its snobbish readers: “For centuries, this scholarly distraction was a privilege for the sumptuous Chinese court and it never went beyond the golden walls of the imperial residence. Only the emperor, the empress, the princes, princesses and their immediate entourage had the right to take out of the priceless boxes, the prodigious little tiles decorated with mysterious signs which allowed them to spend unforgettable hours.”

A Mah-jong table. Vogue, January 1, 1924.

Imagine that you were a fashionable upper-class Parisienne who wanted to entertain and surprise her guests, wouldn’t you rush to the better shops to buy a luxurious set of mah-jong? It would hurt your wallet a bit though. Even the high-end Vogue marked a mah-jong set as expensive: “Its only disadvantage is its price. But for the lovers of the latest fashion and the newest thrill, certainly a must.” A set costed between 650 and 2.000 francs, the present-day equivalent of about 600 to 1.800 €. That was because traditional mah-jong sets were handcrafted out of the bleached shin bones of cows, or out of ivory. The illustrations on the tiles were also carved and coloured by hand. And of course you couldn’t play mah-jong at an ordinary table. You had to buy “a black lacquered wooden table with a leather top preferably with racks on the side.”

A game of Mah-jong between Jeanne Saint-Bonnet and the French actor Max Dearly. Publicity by Kirby, Beard & C°, Paris in Les Modes, December 1924.

Soon the mah-jong game would become much cheaper as synthetic materials were used and the drawings were stamped on the pieces rather than handcrafted. In December 1924 mah-jong sets were already sold in Paris for 100 francs by Kirby, Beard & C° a dramatic price drop, though still a great expense for the middle class.

‘Mah-Jongg Blues’ by Stuart Dunbar and Lester Stevens, published by Tees (San Francisco, 1922).

From 1920 on, as the craze started in the US,  Abercrombie & Fitch was the first company to sell mah-jong sets. To be able to serve their customers they sent scouts to China to buy as much sets as possible. At a certain point the demand was so high that cattle shinbones were sent to China to be crafted into more sets.

‘Since Ma is playing Mah Jong’ by Billy Rose & Con Condrad, published by Witmark & Sons (New York, 1924)

Mah-jong was mostly played by women, such as illustrated by Eddie Cantor with his popular song ‘Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong’. The song has offensive racial language and makes fun of a housewife neglecting her chores because she is addicted to the game.

There is a perfect scene to conclude this post. It is from the opening of Ang Lee’s film ‘Lust, Caution‘, an espionage thriller set in Shanghai during WWII. Watch how the quickness of the game movements follows the pace of the conversation between the four ladies. You’ll certainly miss a subtitle or two!


Lucky Stars: Nénette & Rintintin

La Polka de Nénette et Rintintin‘ by H. Morisson, published by Louis Aerts (Paris, sd).

Nénette and Rintintin were tiny yarn dolls that took Paris by storm in 1918. Parisian ladies would pin them on their bodice as mascots to protect them from the bombs and shells. Men hung the two small talismans on their watch chain and soldiers would keep them in their knapsack. As is often the case with fetishes, the superstition was conditional: it would ward off danger only if the charming little dolls had been given, exchanged or received, but not purchased.

Guillaume Apollinaire described the Nénette and Rintintin craze in august 1918: Talismans and amulets have always existed and will always exist. Nénette and Rintintin are a helpful kind of deities in whom the midinettes have put their trust since the beginning of the war; but the cult became widespread only recently, since circumstances have been favourable to its development. It is perhaps the first time that, since Ariadne’s thread, man has put his trust in a few strands of wool, thread or silk. … Nénette and Rintintin are the first gods born in the 20th century.”

The craze in Paris did not last long (after about three months the frenzy was largely over), but the popularity of Nénette and Rintintin knew no borders.

A photo-story in ‘Popular Mechanics Magazine’ 1918, volume 30.

The inspiration for the mascots were two dolls made by the illustrator Poulbot. Francisque Poulbot was famous for his drawings of the street kids of Montmartre. In 1913 he also designed two porcelain dolls, called Nénette and Rintintin as a Christmas novelty for the Magasins du Louvre.

Advert for Nénette et Rintintin dolls in ‘Excelsior, journal illustré quotidien’ – May 26th 1918.

Only a few of these dolls in porcelain were produced. The boy was called Nénette, which is a female nickname, but it was what Poulbot’s wife lovingly called him — he in turn called her Rintintin. At the start of 1914 the catalogues of the large Parisian department stores featured these dolls. At that time, most of the toys and dolls on the market in France were of German manufacturing. Poulbot argued that these had ‘silly looks and oakum wigs‘ and with his two little dolls he wanted to offer a French, more realistic alternative.

The Poulbot dolls as sold Au Bon Marché in 1914. Source: youtube, Seminar on ‘Poulbot – Artist and Humanitarian‘.

It wasn’t a big commercial succes: Poulbot’s dolls were only on the market for a year and the production was halted during the war. But the names of the  dolls outlived their commercial failure, and were generously given to the home-made woollen figurines. Albeit the names of the boy and girl were switched.

Drawing by Poulbot of a girl playing with Rintintin and Nénette. “La Baïonette” July 1918.

The craze in the spring and summer of 1918 took all forms: cheap woollen dolls were sold in haberdashery shops, lockets and small jewels were designed around the two heroes, and of course they covered the pages of many newspapers and magazines. There were also numerous postcard series published with the adventures of the mascots.
As you would expect, Nénette and Rintintin also have set foot in our sheet music collection. It is proof of their popularity that songs were written about them and tunes composed in their honour. Not only in France, but also in Algeria…

‘Nénette et Rintintin’ by F. Gaillard, published by S. Léon (Alger, sd).

in The Netherlands…

‘C’est Nénette et Rintintin’ by Armand Haagman, published by B. H. Smit (Amsterdam, sd).

and in Switzerland.

'Nénette et Rintintin' waltz by A. Joly. Illustrated sheet music cover
Nénette et Rintintin‘ waltz composed by A. Joly and published by A. Emch (Montreux, s.d.). Illustrator unknown.

To conclude this lucky post, we found a very short British Pathé news reel buried in the myriads of Youtube films.  A souvenir of the once internationally renowned Nénette et Rintintin…

Silver Sleigh Bells

'Silver Sleigh Bells' by E. T. Paull.
Silver Sleigh Bells‘ by E. T. Paull, published by E. T. Paull Music Co (New York, 1906). Lithograph A. Hoen & Co.

All aboard! Here is your fast ride to the Christmas excitement. Prepare for throngs of frenzied shoppers, glühwein, noisy Santas and their tiresome ho ho’s.
This week it is composer-businessman E. T. Paull who sets the start of our story. Edward Paull (1858-1924) was an American publisher who master-minded a perfect mix of image and music. An attractive and dramatic cover is the best way to market your music, he must have thought. On the other hand, he also wanted his compositions to tell stories, and to that purpose he even added explanatory notes inside the sheet music!

Explanatory text to the 'Silver Sleigh Bells'.
Explanatory‘ – instructive text on how the music should be interpreted, and what narrative it expresses (p.2 of the ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’ sheet music).

Sheet music from E. T. Paull has long been considered as the crème de la crème amongst US collectors, not in the least because Paull boasted on using the five colour process of his lithographers A. Hoen & Company. But ink transfer from the stone to the paper is a delicate process. It can go wrong.

A lithographic misprint of 'Silver Sleigh Bells'
Two editions of ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’. The one on the right shows the horses and the sleighs as a big dark blob. A lithographic misprint.

I am not a connoisseur of E. T. Paull’s work. That’s why I refer to interesting sites on the subject at the end of this post.

Unfortunately, the topic of Christmas has inspired many illustrators and publishers to dull and bland covers. However, some designers went out of their way to avoid stereotypes and succeeded in creating striking cover illustrations. For your entertainment and fine taste, we selected some of these ‘original’ sheet music. Consider it your Christmas gift from Images Musicales.
Happy Christmas and have a good time!

Smaal sheet music illustrated by Punch
Noël de Pierrot et de Colombine‘ by Léo Lelièvre. Published by Henri Pascal (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Punch.
Illustration of a 1926 sheet music cover attributed to Isaac Grünewald.
Juleljus (Julsång)’ by Gösta Jahn and Zacharias Topelius. Published by Elkan & Schildknecht, Emil Carelius (Stockholm, 1926). Illustration attributed to Isaac Grünewald.
Sheet Music cover 'Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht ; Weihnachten' by Fritz Kirchner
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht ; Weihnachten‘ by Fritz Kirchner. Published by Emil Hunger (Berlin, s.d.). Illustrator unknown.
Sheet music 'Der Weihnachtsengel' illustrated by Linge.
Der Weihnachtsengel‘ by Richard Krentzlin. Published by Birnbach (Berlin, 1920). Illustration by Linge.

Further reading: a few pages on the net are dedicated to the life and work of E. T. Paull, amongst others at the Parlor Songs Academy and on ‘Perfessor’ Bills website.
To see more covers of E. T. Paull, visit the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.

Not enough Christmas covers? Look here in our sheet music collection.